War Heightens Interest in Military, Recruiters Say

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The involvement of a half-million U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf war has not curtailed high-school students' interest in military enlistment, and may have heightened it, recent interviews with a sampling of military recruiters indicate.

As 12th graders head into the time of year for decisions about what to do after graduation, recruiters for the four military branches in cities around the country report a normal level of interest, with some eager students wanting to leave school and join the war effort now--a move the military discourages.

Students are also asking more questions about military service, and parents are appearing more apprehensive than usual, the recruiters report.

Three of the seven recruiters interviewed in an unscientific survey reported some increase in interest or enlistments since the war started. They cite reasons as disparate as the overall success to date of Operation Desert Storm, media coverage of the war, the recession at home, and a surge of patriotism.

Although two recruiters for the U.S. Air Force could not report any significant difference in their ability to recruit since Jan. 16, they say that the Air Force's pivotal role in the war's high-profile air campaign has generated some new enthusiasm toward the service among students.

"A lot of [students] get excited about it," says Staff Sgt. Reginald L. Bullock, an Air Force recruiter in 14 Philadelphia schools. "It has hyped us up a little bit."

But, he says, instead of swaying their thinking about joining the military, the spotlight on the Air Force has provided "a more close understanding of what their job might entail."

Such excitement may not last, recruiters acknowledge, especially if a ground war becomes bloody and protracted. "It's going to be interesting to see how it goes," said one Army recruiter.

'Opened the Patriotic Jar'

While about 60 percent of young people who join the services do so at age 18 or 19, according to the Defense Department, 17-year-olds who have their parents' permission may also sign up. High-school seniors are a perennial and often fertile pool that recruiters try to draw on by visiting schools, participating in career fairs, and keeping a high profile in the community.

Unlike in years past, the military today virtually requires a high-school diploma, so high-school seniors who enlist do so under a delayed-entry program and do not actually begin service until after they have graduated.

At least three major California school districts, however, moved recently to block the military's access to students. School boards in Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco voted to reverse longstanding policies of supplying student information to military recruiters, and San Francisco also barred on-campus recruitment activities by military organizations. (See Education Week, Jan. 30, 1991.)

For Staff Sgt. Keith W. Caston, an Army recruiter covering two high schools in Atlanta's northern suburbs, though, business is brisk. Attendance at his on-campus presentations as well as telephone and in-person inquiries are up by as much as 35 percent among high-school students since the war began. Enlistments in his area may be up by about 20 percent, Sergeant Caston says.

"It does our hearts good to see the patriotism" that has emerged since the war began, he says.

However, Sergeant Caston adds, one factor like patriotism is not the sole reason for such interest.

"I would say it's a combination of things," he says. The military's "being on the front pages has something to do with it."

Similarly, Gunnery Sgt. Michael Cherry, a Marine Corps recruiter, says that since the start of the war he has signed up about three or four more high schoolers than might have been expected at his Boston office.

"I think Desert Storm may have opened up the patriotic jar," Sergeant Cherry says. "Some young men are saying, 'It's time for me to do something for my country."'

Last fall, while Operation Desert Shield, the initial stage of the deployment, was heating up, Sergeant Cherry also saw a nearly 70 percent increase in enlistments.

"The recession is one [reason], and Desert Storm is another," the Army recruiter says. "Here in Massachusetts, there are not a lot of jobs for young people."

Reality Cools Ardor of Some

For some recruiters, the weeks leading up to the outbreak of war offered more of a challenge to recruiting.

Jan. 15, the United Nations deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, prompted a kind of "wait-and see" attitude among potential enlistees, several recruiters said.

For parents, Jan. 15 "was a big date," says Sgt. 1st Class Alfred W. King, an Army recruiter in Tempe, Ariz.

"Right now, things are pretty much back to normal," he says.

The reality of the war may have cooled some students' ardor, he points out.

"You have people who were interested and are no longer," Sergeant King says. "It kind of scares them. It's real. We're really at war, and people are really going to be getting hurt."

Whether they are eager or not, 17-year-olds want to know whether they will be going to the Gulf, recruiters say.

"My only response is, 'I don't know,"' says Air Force Sergeant Bullock in Philadelphia. In trying to present an "honest, realistic" portrait of the Air Force, he can tell them that only about 10 percent of the U.S. Air Force is in the Persian Gulf--about 50,000 out of 500,000 men and women worldwide.

For Boston's Sergeant Cherry, the primary changes in recruiting since the war began are the questions of the parents of 17-year-olds who must give their permission in order for their child to enlist.

Before the war, he says, parents' questions tended to center on the type of program or job their child would get in the military. Now, "a lot of them are concerned," he says. "They're worried about the impact of Desert Storm."

But high schoolers seem just as likely to ask the same questions as always, focusing on what a military career has to offer, recruiters says.

"They are coming for the education and training ... and to get out of Philadelphia. And they can still accomplish that," says Sergeant Bullock of the Air Force.

Vol. 10, Issue 23, Page 6

Published in Print: February 27, 1991, as War Heightens Interest in Military, Recruiters Say
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